Why Buddhism is NOT a science of the mind: a review of Evan Thompson’s ‘Why I am not a Buddhist’

June 10, 2020

This article first appeared in Spanish on Bernat Font’s website, at https://budismosecular.org/2020/06/05/por-que-el-budismo-no-es-una-ciencia-de-la-mente/. It is reprinted in a translated form here with the kind permission of Bernat.


In his latest book, the philosopher Evan Thompson tells us why he is not a Buddhist (‘Why I Am Not A Buddhist’). To sum it up: Thompson does not feel that he can be a Buddhist in the traditional sense, but neither is he convinced by the most widespread alternative today, one that cuts across traditions: Buddhist modernism. For him, Buddhist modernism is a building riddled with philosophical cracks, it is not sound. In addition, he wants to encourage a cosmopolitanism that apart from drinking from Buddhist wisdom is also nourished by other Indian and Far Eastern philosophies.

The main arguments of the book are the following: Buddhism is not the only religion that houses rich philosophical and scientific traditions; science cannot confirm Buddhist doctrines such as the absence of the self, enlightenment, or the effectiveness of meditation by looking at the brain, but these must be understood in their own conceptual framework; and dialogues between Buddhists and scientists serve more to embellish neuroscience and justify Buddhism than to challenge and stimulate each other.

Raised in the Lindisfarne Association, an alternative educational community, Thompson became a disciple of Francisco Varela, with whom he wrote ‘The Embodied Mind’. He was the invited philosopher in three editions of the now famous meetings between Tibetan Buddhist scientists and teachers, promoted by the Dalai Lama: the Mind & Life Dialogues.

His book is a breath of fresh air that questions without partisanship, distributing blows equally, but never with malice or controversy. One feels that his reflections come from genuine inspection, honesty, and respect. Both when I agreed with him and when I disagreed, Evan Thompson managed to urge me to question — which is what a good philosopher should do.

Running through the book, which displays a rare balance between rigor of content and lightness of reading, is a critique of presenting Buddhism as a science of the mind—a basic ingredient of Buddhist modernism. Specifically, the criticism is directed at a subgroup he calls Neural Buddhists. Such a way of thinking affects traditionalists as much as contemporary mindfulness enthusiasts.

In this article I focus on this aspect, and summarize Evan Thompson’s arguments about why Buddhism is not a science of the mind. (I mostly leave my opinions aside, and when I introduce them they are identifiable and in the first person.)

I have divided the article into 5 parts: (1) Buddhist exceptionalism, (2) Buddhism is neither true nor false, (3) Are you sure the self is an illusion?, (4) Meditation and mindfulness are not in the brain, and (5) problems in the dialogues between science and Buddhism.

This post is not short. But I assure you it is interesting.

Buddhist exceptionalism

Thompson opens by calling out Buddhist exceptionalism. This is an idea that completely permeates the perception of Buddhism in the West and in which secular Buddhism falls too—I would like to say ‘fell’. It consists in the perception that among all religions Buddhism is unique (and superior) in its rationality and compatibility with science, and that Buddhism is not really a religion but a philosophy, a way of life, or a science of the mind.

Yamada Ryōun wrote that, having no faith in a transcendent being, Zen is not a religion, but rather an experiential method of finding the true self and the truth of existence. To this Thompson responds that faith in a transcendent being is not a universal characteristic of religions, while ‘the true self’ or ‘the truth of existence’ are undoubtedly religious notions.

According to Alan Wallace, the problem with classifying Buddhism as a religion is that its philosophical and scientific parts are pushed aside. This too is underpinned by Buddhist exceptionalism: it seems as if Judaism, Christianity, or Islam did not have rich philosophical and scientific traditions. However, only Buddhism has the popular privilege of championing them. Can you imagine books with titles like ‘Christian Biology’ or ‘Why Christianity is True’ ?

Until life brought me to university departments of Religious Studies, I did not understand what religion was—nor did I realize I did not know, that’s the problem with ignorance. Many of these issues are largely based on some confusion about the nature of religion. But let’s leave this for another day, otherwise this post would be very very long.

Buddhism is neither true nor false

Buddhist ‘cause and effect’ sounds very scientific until we recognise it is a moral doctrine, and the idea that every conditioned phenomenon is transient is inseparable from the idea that ‘therefore it is unsatisfactory’. This is a value judgment that Buddhism makes. You can agree with it, but it’s still a judgment, not a scientific fact.

Robert Wright, author of ‘Why Buddhism Is True’, uses evolutionary psychology to make sense of and corroborate many Buddhist ideas. Thompson questions the extent to which our psychology remains fixed by our hunter-gatherer past in the Pleistocene. It is a discourse that makes quite a lot of sense to me, as a layman, but according to Thompson there is little evidence to support it.

Contemporary mindfulness, without wanting to underestimate its contribution to psychological well-being, can easily be just another tool for individual, personal improvement. In a cultural environment of consumerism, which overactivates our tendencies of approach & avoidance and anxious desire, to point out evolutionary conditioning over cultural ones is unjustified, and practicing mindfulness (conceived as personal improvement) will have little effect.

The idea of ​​awakening or enlightenment shows well the problems of mixing religious and philosophical issues with scientific ones. If science is to be able to study awakening, awakening must be articulated in scientifically valid terms. If one wants to maintain that awakening transcends concepts, dualistic thinking, or that it is an achievement of the fullness of being or the ‘suchness’ of reality, then one must abandon the ambition that it be scientifically intelligible or confirmable, since those are not scientific concepts. You can’t have everything, says Thompson.

Beyond this, Thompson questions whether it makes sense to consider that awakening is beyond concepts, since to call an experience an ‘awakening experience’ is to conceptualize it, the concept we have is in part constitutive of it—the same happens with love. In fact, Buddhism does not agree on a single view of awakening, which suggests that the way to understand each of those views is in relation to the philosophical (and therefore conceptual) framework of that particular tradition, not by hooking electrodes to anyone’s head.

Although we need a brain to experience love or awakening, no brain state is intrinsically a state of love or awakening. This depends on how awakening is conceptualized and what role it plays in a social and value structure that exists outside the skull. The brain is the wrong place to look.

Thompson proposes a simile. If we were to identify Yo-Yo Ma’s exact neural patterns when playing Bach’s Cello Suite #1, this would give us insight into the effects of continued musical practice on the brain, but would tell us nothing about Bach or music. On the contrary: we need to understand Bach’s music to grasp the significance of that brain activity. “You cannot understand the significance of neural patterns without first understanding the concepts and social practices that constitute the meaning of enlightenment.”

None of this implies that awakening is a fiction or that it is not worth pursuing. It’s simply that it’s not science. But neither are beauty or love. I also do not think Thompson denies that science can study aspects of Buddhism, or beauty for that matter. Rather, he does not agree that science can explain them, justify them, or determine their value.

Are you sure the self is an illusion?

Another Buddhist doctrine advertised as confirmed by science is the nonexistence of the self. For Thompson, cognitive science does not demonstrate that the self is an illusion: it says it’s a construction, which is not quite the same. The idea that what is constructed and dependent is less real is a philosophical tenet of ​​Buddhism, articulated in the literature called abhidharma, but other systems of thought do not take that premise. Again, rather than invalidating the Buddhist idea, this only means that putting it side by side with science is a category mistake.

There is no single conception of the self. In explaining this doctrine to meditation groups I always insist that you have to be very clear on what self Buddhism is denying, because we use this word in all kinds of manners.

Thompson defines the Buddhist self as the object of self-attachment, a personal essence, the possessor of the concatenation of experiences, and as deeply affective. This is not the only way to understand the self, though, so denying this self does not mean that there’s no self at all. (In my view, Thompson’s idea of ​​self is closer to the concept of puggala/pudgala, and the interactive set of 5 khandhas/skandhas.)

Current philosophy and cognitive science often speaks of the self as an embodied and socially embedded subject of experience. Phenomenology treats the self as a multifaceted construction consisting of various forms of self-awareness. And cognitive psychology distinguishes multiple conceptions of self, none of which as an independent reality.

Buddhist-scientific discourses are superficial: they do not take into account this diversity of notions, nor those found within Buddhism itself, which does not have a single, cross-traditional view on the self, but several—sometimes even within the same tradition.

This is an point that Thompson repeats throughout the book: when science makes claims about a Buddhist concept, such as awakening, it gives a false sense of philosophical unity. What Buddhist view of awakening is one specifically referring to? There are many!

The result of ignoring all these nuances is poor communication, since what the general public hears (even what Buddhists acculturated in the West hear) more closely resembles what Buddhism calls nihilism, or ‘annihilationism’ of the person.

Thompson prefers to reserve ‘illusion’ to describe the impression of a stable, non-changing personal essence; and calls the self a ‘construction’. For him, this has the advantage of allowing us to understand states in which the sense of self is attenuated or completely absent.

Whether or not these states are beneficial no longer belongs to science as a descriptive discipline. And neither does the claim that a misunderstanding about the self is the cause of suffering: this is a normative, philosophical, and religious statement, not a psychological fact.

Putting all of the above together, Thompson rejects the idea that science has confirmed that the self does not exist simply because it has opened the brain and not found a ‘CEO’ self directing everything.

At the same time, Buddhism has troubles explaining the principle of identity, that which gives unity and coherence to a series of impersonal events that I call Gloria, and that I can identify/separate from another series that I call Bernat (‘unity of consciousness’ and ‘binding problem’). Thompson explains how other Indian philosophical systems, such as the Nyaiyāyikas, challenged Buddhists, and how neuroscience explains these things without resorting to an essentialist idea of ​​the self.

Meditation and mindfulness are not in the brain

‘Why I Am Not A Buddhist’ dedicates a chapter to mindfulness. Towards the beginning he proposes that meditation cannot be isolated from the social context in which it takes place, that it is a mistake to think that there is a separate component called ‘mindfulness’ that could function as an active ingredient in the individual brain. The benefits of mindfulness, both Buddhist and secular, are inseparable from the communal and social settings in which the practice is located.

Thompson addresses two general misunderstandings regarding mindfulness: “One is that mindfulness is an essentially inward awareness of your own private mind. The other is that the best way to understand the effects of mindfulness practices is to look inside the head at the brain.”

These two ideas, which are mutually reinforcing, are again a category mistake, since they attribute to the brain what for Evan Thompson are attributes of the whole person. He proposes the model of enactive, embodied cognition, which instead of zooming in to neural activity takes the larger unit of ‘brain-body-world’. (In fact, this perspective sounds markedly dharmic to me, in considering that cognition is not a mental representation of a pre-existing world, but a ‘co-dependent arising’, to say it in Buddhist.)

As much as a bird needs wings to fly, its flight is not inside its wings but is a relationship of the whole animal with its environment. Being a good father or mother consists of a set of cognitive and emotional capacities that must be applied to specific situations. Those abilities depend in part on the brain, and training them changes the brain, but they are not private states of mind that exist within the brain.

This is similar to the relationship between being mindful and brain activity: mindfulness consists of a series of skills integrated and applied to a situation. It is a way of being, as I like to translate it. Certain processes of the brain allow and underlie it, but do not constitute it in its entirety.

Thompson goes further and challenges the idea that there is a one-to-one correspondence between cognitive functions and areas of the brain or neural networks. There is, for example, no clear way to identify the activity of a particular area of ​​the brain with the cognitive function of attention, since attention is not a singular process but rather a way in which various processes occur in relation to each other. The activation of certain areas of the brain allows and facilitates attention, but does not constitute or generate it. As with the Yo-Yo Ma example, its activation tells us little about what mindfulness is.

An even more basic problem, in the comparison of Buddhism with science, is that bare attention (as Nyanaponika Thera translated ‘sati’) is not an instrument that reveals what the mind really is without altering it. Sometimes both ways of thinking are mixed without realizing they’re in conflict. Meditation is presented as a laboratory instrument that discloses the nature of the mind, but also as a tool that shapes it. Let’s make up our minds! We can’t have it both ways: whatever affects the object of study is not an effective tool to reveal how that object really is.

These ideas make sense in a Buddhist logic, but they don’t work as science. Thompson recalls a meditation retreat for scientists: the teachers presented the practice as learning to see experience as it is, but also instructed them to view it as changing, unsatisfactory, and impersonal. Are we learning to see experience for what it is, Thompson wondered, or to conceive of it in a specific way determined by the Buddhist vision of a state of peace and non-attachment?

Problems in the dialogues between science and Buddhism

Evan Thompson not only participated as a philosopher in three editions of the Mind & Life Dialogue, but grew up in the community that almost gave them life: he attended the first edition at just 15 years old. When it comes to dialogues between scientists and Buddhists, he knows what he is talking about.

Thompson is not shy in his claims: the idea of ​​a first-person science is absurd; experiential tests are not experimental tests, they do not provide predictions for which there are no other explanations; meditation cannot be a controlled experiment; attention is not an instrument that reveals the mind without affecting it.

From his experience in these dialogues, he explains how certain questions were often pushed aside: Can scientists who are personally involved in meditation be impartial? Why is there so much antecedent commitment to establishing that meditation is beneficial? ‘Doesn’t it distort both Buddhism and science to use Buddhist concepts such as “awakening,” “pure awareness,” “innate goodness,” or “Buddha nature” to interpret scientific studies of the brain and behavior?’

The Dalai Lama, in his dual role of popularizing Buddhism and preserving Tibetan cultural heritage, wants to show that Buddhism has knowledge at the level of science, using it to modernize Buddhism but at the same time protecting Buddhism from scientific materialism. It is a classic move of Buddhist modernism.

At the same time, these conferences did not take the opportunity to question, from the Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy, the naturalism, positivism and realism of science; especially the idea that there is a way in which the world basically is, independent of our frameworks, and which we can access.

Science, Thompson points out, reveals what reality is like in relation to our conceptual systems and our research methods. But in those encounters, Buddhist teachers seemed to accept the premises of science, and when philosophers suggested epistemological questions these did not meet with enthusiasm, thus missing the opportunity for a much more enriching debate for both parties.

The zeal of science and psychology for Buddhism assumes that Buddhist models of experience are comparable to scientific models, without acknowledging that they are built on Buddhist philosophy and embody its ethical values. An example of this that I presented at a conference very recently is the category of ‘emotions’. Although it dominates much of Buddhist discourse today, it is essentially a secular and morally disengaged concept born a couple of centuries ago, and is therefore inadequate to understand an ancient Indian tradition that aspires to liberation—a religious concept. 

‘Buddhist science’ takes Buddhist models as if they were value-free descriptions of the mind, and confuses the mind with the biological reality of the brain, which for Thompson is just one of its conditions. Without realizing it, it has transformed philosophical systems built to embody and display Buddhist doctrines, and to be applied to a soteriological task—seeking liberation—into an objective map of the mind it then tries to correlate with neural networks. (What a pastiche…)

In the final section of the book, Thompson recovers Francisco Varela’s thoughts on the conversation between Buddhism and science. Varela identified two extreme attitudes: that of embellishing science with words taken from an Eastern tradition, and that of justifying that tradition by taking those parts of science that validate it.

For Thompson, today we see a lot of the latter, both in the hype of contemporary mindfulness and in the work of Buddhist scientists. According to him, the best that Buddhism can bring to modernity is to challenge our excessive confidence that science explains what the world really is like, and to offer a radical critique to our narcissistic concern with the self.

I hope this summary has been helpful. If you enjoyed it, please read the book. 



One Reply to “Why Buddhism is NOT a science of the mind: a review of Evan Thompson’s ‘Why I am not a Buddhist’”

Martin Gisser

“[T]he idea that there is a way in which the world basically is” isn’t an idea of modern science. Science is about how things work, not what they are.

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